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Project Dropout: Not Just An Urban Problem

You may dismiss the high-school dropout crisis in Massachusetts as an urban problem. And if you look at the statistics, it largely is. Nearly 15 percent of students in Lawrence drop out each year, compared with many suburban towns which lose less than one percent of students a year.

NEAL SULLIVAN: We all have a stake in reversing the high school drop out crisis.

Neal Sullivan is executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership that connects businesses with Boston Public Schools.

SULLIVAN: Each high-school dropout costs the taxpayer $455,000 over a lifetime. The cost of public dependency, which ranges from transitional assistance payments to health care subsidies to incarceration and the lost taxes that comes from lower lifetime earnings.

Over the coming weeks we'll take a close look at the dropout crisis in a series of reports called "Project Dropout."

CARLOS PORTILLO: I haven't been going for these past like two weeks.

Carlos Portillo is 17 and has not dropped out of school, but he's considering it. He's skipping school a lot, and the challenges he's facing indicate he's on the path to leaving. It started in elementary school, when he was picked on because he's overweight. He became disruptive in class, was suspended and ended up flunking two grades. He's two years older than his peers in the sophomore class of Chelsea High school.

PORTILLO: I kind of feel weird staying back with younger kids and feel left out, and if I stay back again, I'll be, like, 18. When I graduate I'll be, like, 21.

If Carlos leaves school for good, he will join more than 11,000 students statewide who drop out each year. For the past 10 years the dropout rate has held steady: about 3 percent a year. But to better understand the impact, you need to look over time and see that only 80 percent of incoming freshmen in the commonwealth graduate four years later.

That's not good enough, says the state's Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

MITCHELL CHESTER: The fact that the drop out rate is not increasing is not by itself something to celebrate and we do need to do better.

Gov. Deval Patrick wants to cut the dropout rate by 25 percent by the end of his first term, two years from now. That means hanging on to 2,750 more students each year. Commissioner Chester won't say how far along the state is toward meeting that goal, but he's concerned.

CHESTER: And do I worry quite a bit about the impact of the economic downturn both on our school districts as well as on our private lives of our students. We are going to see growing number of families in fiscal distress and that's going to make the job harder.

Such financial pressures are part of what's driving Carlos Portillo to think about leaving school. His mom can't pay the rent, and he wants to get a job.

PORTILLO: I wanna help my mom with the rent and help my brothers getting clothes and stuff.

If Carlos decides to quit school, it will be the biggest decision of his life, affecting his earning potential and health. If he has children, it could affect them, too. But trying to convince Carlos to stay in school is difficult.

Rebecca Nice works with Carlos and many other at-risk teens at ROCA a youth center in Chelsea.

REBECCA NICE: It's a process of trying to get them to think about the long term. How much more will you be able to help your mom if you make it through college and have a degree and are earning thousands of dollars more than you would have if you hadn't?

Engagement with an adult can be crucial to a child's academic success. But many teachers say they feel unprepared for the challenges of dealing with the multifaceted problem of dropouts. A recent Gates Foundation report shows that poverty and race play large roles — especially in urban school districts such as Boston's, where Latino and black students have consistently higher dropout out rates than white students. William Hayes, who teaches ninth grade at the New Mission High School in Boston, says there's only so much teachers can do.

WILLIAM HAYES: By the time a kid enters your classroom, there's whole bunch of issues that are stacked up on each other. And part of that is understanding the student and where they come from and now they navigate school and their communities and they bring with them all that. I think there's so many things teachers need to take into consideration when teaching these students that we don't necessarily get they aren't prepared for in our teacher education programs.

There are many reasons why kids drop out. But they can be boiled down to three categories: academic, school climate and personal. Here are a few dropouts.

STUDENT VOICES: I'm Melia, and I'm 17. I dropped out because I didn't like my school because I was getting into a lot of fights.

I'm Heidi, and I'm 25. I got into the whole party scene and I never wanted to go to school and was skipping school constantly and I just fell way behind, so I left.

I'm Antonio Rosa, a k a Dudu. I'm 20 years old. I wasn't a stupid kid. I was smart in school. I never had the patience to be in school.

All three of these former students think they could have succeeded in school and they regret their decision to leave. Dudu, for instance.

ANTONIO ROSA: I know how difficult it would be to get by without a diploma because I seen all my cousins, uncles everybody in my family not a lot of people have graduated not a lot of people have high school diplomas so I knew what I was going to be expecting. Now that I'm dropped out now I got nothing but mad regrets. I wish I was still in school. I wish I would have finished it would have made my life a lot easier.

And if Dudu had finished high school, he would earn almost $10,000 more a year. He would have better health and live longer. He also would be less likely to depend on public assistance, be imprisoned, or become a single parent. These are all quantifiable affects of a high school diploma identified in a recent study by economists at Northeastern University.

At ROCA in Chelsea these facts are hanging on handmade signs around the building to get kids to think twice about leaving school. Carlos Portillo is a mentor to other students, but when I visited in the fall, he told his peers he's doesn't think he can stay.

CLASS DISCUSSION: What's the reason for dropping out? What's the reason? I don't want to stay I want to get my GED while working so I can help my mom. Get my ged have something better afterwards probably go to college and also working to help my mom out.

Don't want to stay for another two years, I want to get my GED and get it over with.

We don't want you to drop out and think that none of us cared and were concerned because every single person in this room has talked to me about being worried about you.

With all that's stacked against Carlos — he's flunked two grades, he's not attending school, he feels pressure to help his mom — there are many things working to keep him in school — caring adults at ROCA, supportive friends who are in school and the chance to be a role model of success for other students. But will they be enough?

This program aired on February 9, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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